Sunday, March 18, 2012

Spring Adventure Idea - Sovereign Trail Singletrack, Moab

Spring is almost here. In Utah, Spring means it's time to start dreaming up trips to Moab - warm weather, red rock, and outdoor adventures. When you think of Moab, the first thing that comes to mind is mountain biking. One of my favorite rides near Moab is the single-track Sovereign Trail.

The Sovereign Trail system offers mountain bikers a little bit of everything. Climbing gently up Salt Wash, the trail surface alternates between slickrock and packed brown dirt, mostly avoiding the frustrating sand traps that plague some of the area's other trails. The varied character of the ride keeps things interesting and challenging, but is not too difficult for those new to riding single track. Making it a popular route for both beginners and experienced riders.

Several variations along the route spread bikers out and keep the popular trail from becoming too crowded. They also offer different length rides so you can custom tailor your tour. As the single track gains elevation, views spread out of the surrounding red rock country. Arches National Park is to the south, and Canyonlands National Park to the west. The trail is easy to follow, even across the slickrock, but you'll want at least a rudimentary map to navigate the multiple trail junctions. Small drops over sandstone ledges and a section of sharp switchbacks offer notable technical challenges along the trail. But these are balanced by sections of smooth, fast single track.

If your trip includes camping, pick up a copy of my guidebook, Moon Utah Camping for information on all the Moab area campgrounds.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Wasatch Backcountry Skiing is Under Siege

Love skiing in the Wasatch backcountry? Not for long. That's right, if the ski resorts get what they're applying for, you'll be hard pressed to find any quality terrain left outside the ski area boundaries.

Five of the seven major ski resorts operating in the Central Wasatch Mountains are attempting to gobble up the remaining mountains outside their borders - by adding chairlifts and turning the entire heart of the range into one, connected sea of lift-access terrain. Backcountry ski legend, and author of the Chuting Gallery, Andrew McLean outlines the impacts of the nine new lifts here on his blog - According to an article in the Deseret News, if all the lift proposals were to go forward, the total acres of in-bounds terrain would more than double, adding as many as 8,270 acres to the 6,294 acres now.

If you only love skiing in-bounds, you might think this is great news, but if you've ever had a memorable day in the Wasatch backcountry, and hope to have more in the future, then now is the time to speak up. Because before long, this little range will be maxed out with chairlifts, aerial trams and gondolas to every ridge top. Grizzly Gulch, Flagstaff Mountain, Silver Fork, Cardiff Fork, USA Bowl, Wolverine Cirque, Twin Lakes Pass, White Pine - you name your favorite backcountry destination, it'll be inside a resort, tracked out by noon.

There's nothing new about the Wasatch ski resorts trying to expand. In fact, they've been slowing spreading their collective footprint since the first ski lift was installed at Alta in 1937. But at some point, we, as Salt Lake City residents, need to decide when enough is enough. How developed do we want the Wasatch to be?

Let's take a closer look at the new lift projects currently proposed.

  • The Canyons/Solitude SkiLink Connect Tram
The Canyons, owned by Talisker Corp. is partnering with Solitude Mountain Resort in a joint effort to connect the two ski areas with a gondola. The 8 passenger lift, dubbed SkiLink, would access 6,000 acres of current backcountry terrain - starting at the Solitude base area and unloading at the top of the Canyon's Daybreak lift. The nearly two mile long lift could deliver 1,000 skiers per hour to the top of the Park City Ridge Line, accessing backcountry favorites like USA Bowl, and Bear Trap Fork.

To build their gondola, this partnership has pursued purchasing a 30.3 acre parcel of public land at the top of Big Cottonwood Canyon. In an effort to acquire the land, a bill has been introduced to Congress - The Wasatch Range Recreation Access Enhancement Act, to remove the land from the federally protected watershed, and put it in private ownership. Therefore eliminating the Forest Service, who's current forest plan prohibits ski resort expansion within the Cottonwood Canyons, from the decision process. Salt Lake City Public Utilities, who provides drinking water for Salt Lake from Big Cottonwood Canyon has expressed concern over the proposal. (Backcountry skier Sonja Matson in USA Bowl, above)

  • Snowbird Tram to American Fork Twin Peaks
Snowbird has proposed a new expansion package to the Forest Service. Its centerpiece is a new tram running from Hidden Peak to the West Twin of Twin Peaks American Fork Canyon. The expansion would add 780 acres of Mary Ellen Gulch into the Snowbird Resort boundary. The Forest Service has accepted the proposal, and is considering it for approval.

From a backcountry skier's perspective, this tram is also concerning because it would provide resort skiers easy access to White Pine Canyon's upper bowls. While Mary Ellen Gulch doesn't get much use because access is limited by the location of Snowbird, White Pine is one of the most popular Little Cottonwood tours. (Backcountry skier Kelly Paasch in White Pine Canyon, above)

  • Alta Lift on Flagstaff Mountain
Alta is exploring the idea of a new lift up Flagstaff Mountain on the north side of Little Cottonwood Canyon. Their rationalization: the lift would make avalanche control work safer, by eliminating the use of artillery fire across the canyon. The new lift would in turn allow skier compaction of the slopes, helping to stabilize Upper Little Cottonwood Canyon's snowpack. Can't argue with that. But the lift would provide access to some of the most popular backcountry terrain in the world. Grizzly Gulch, Flagstaff Mountain, Twin Lakes Pass, all these popular tours would either be inside Alta's ropes or part of their easy access "side-country".

  • Solitude Mountain Resort's proposed new lift in Silver Fork Canyon

Solitude has proposed a new lift in Silver Fork Canyon. The package would include re-aligning the Honeycomb return chair for a return ride from the bottom of Silver Fork. The new lift would access a total of 298 acres of backcountry terrain, (182 Forest Service/116 private). The Silver Fork lift and Flagstaff Mountain lifts would essentially connect Alta and Solitude at the ridge. Again the Solitude "side-country" would expand under this proposal too, with easy access to neighboring Days Fork, and the very popular backcountry runs of Meadow Chutes on the west side of Silver Fork Canyon.

  • Park City Resort's Jupiter and 10420 Lift

Park City Resort is exploring building two new lifts in the Guardsman Pass area, one to the top of Jupiter, the other to Peak 10420. These lifts would expand Park City's boundaries to the north edge of Brighton Resort.

Here's a link to a KSL video about the overall effect of the proposed ski area expansions.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Self Portrait - Ten years in the making

I'd been wanting to make a photo like this for a long time. About 10 years, actually. Sometimes though, realizing the image in your minds eye takes a little more time and effort than you'd expect.

Paragliding has been a dream of mine since following my college roommate Matt to Sun Valley, Idaho in June of 2000. Matt was, and still is, an avid pilot, and his life that summer revolved around flying a paraglider. Photographing Matt and his friends soaring glass-off conditions before sunset in the Boulder Mountains cemented my desire to fly, even though I couldn't afford it at the time. The light was stellar, and I was happy to be taking pictures, but part of me felt a little jealous I couldn't join those guys in the air. The seeds of my desire to fly had been firmly planted on my bucket list that summer.

Ten years later I found myself living in Salt Lake City, in a valley that turns out to be an excellent place to learn to paraglide. At the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, a long ridge extends out of the Wasatch Mountains, and ramps down to the valley floor. The ridge, known as the Point of the Mountain, divides the Salt Lake and Utah valleys from one another. "The Point," offers consistent soaring conditions for paragliding eight months out of the year. With an easy access training hill less than 20 miles from my house, and a handful of well respected paragliding schools to choose from, I found myself strapping into a paragliding harness for the first time.

Learning to paraglide is only part of this picture. Taking interesting photos while dangling from a fabric wing presents more than a few challenges. First and foremost, pargliding photography requires enough skill and good judgement as a pilot to take pictures safely. When the conditions are good at the Point of the Mountain, there are enough other pilots in the air that it requires your full attention to safely avoid a mid-air collision. Busy skies also take something away from the drama of paragliding photographs much like a picture from a crowded ski resort doesn't compare to one shot in the backcountry. So even when I could find open airspace to pull out my camera at the Point, my early attempts at capturing the freedom and drama of paragliding came up somewhat short.

As my flying skills improved, moving to less crowded sites offered the space to take my hands off the controls, and put my eye to the viewfinder. Mountain sites like The B in the shot above, also provide a more dramatic mountain backdrop for great photos. The launch for The B is at the mouth of Big Cottonwood Canyon. Thermaling above launch provides views into Fergusen Canyon and the lower ridges of Twin Peaks.

The final component to this shot was stepping away from the DSLR camera and using the GoPro camera mounted on a trekking pole. GoPro cameras are everywhere in the paragliding scene, mostly mounted on pilots helmets to record video of their flight from a POV perspective. While these videos become repeatitive after you've watched a few, the fisheye lens is perfectly suited to capturing the pilot from the end of an extension pole. It shows the pilot's position in their harness, and the wild freedom of flying high in the mountains.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah's San Rafael Swell

Spring is just around the corner which has many of us dreaming about warm weather adventures. Southern Utah is the place to head for early season warmth. If you're looking for a cool idea to jump-start the new season, consider Little Wild Horse Canyon in the San Rafael Swell. The eight mile loop hike (when combined with the neighboring Bell Canyon) offers explorers red rock, slot canyon beauty with easy access and relatively minimal effort. Located near Goblin Valley State Park, Little Wild Horse Canyon is one of the closest slot canyons to Salt Lake City.

Expect to encounter other-worldly scenery in Little Wild Horse Canyon. Narrow passages, wildly sculpted sandstone walls, quiet isolation, and lovely reflected sunlight can all be found in the bowels of the canyon. Little Wild Horse is also an immensely popular hike, so don't be surprised to encounter other hikers and hear their voices echoing down the stone corridors.

The normal hazards associated with slot canyon exploration apply in Little Wild Horse. Flash floods can and do occur during spring storms. If rain is in the forecast, avoid slot canyons altogether. Pools of cold, murky water may be found in the upper reaches of Little Wild Horse Canyon after storms. This past weekend (March 5th, 2010) there were a series of knee deep, icy pools we had to navigate. Having a pair of sandals and a towel is a good idea if it's rained before you go.

Plan on spending four to six hours to explore Little Wild Horse Canyon. A map of the canyon is available at the trailhead.

Getting there:

Little Wild Horse Canyon is located near the entrance to Goblin Valley State Park in the San Rafael Swell region of Central-Southern Utah. From Salt Lake City head south on I-15. Take Exit 258 onto US Highway 6 and follow Hwy 6 southeast to the junction with I-70. Take I-70 west via the ramp to Salina. Follow I-70 west for 0.3 miles and exit following signs to Hanksville on State Route 24. Continue west on UT-24 for 24.2 miles. Turn right onto Temple Mountain Road following signs for Goblin Valley State Park. Follow Temple Mountain Road for 5.2 miles and turn left at Goblin Valley Road. Drive 6.0 miles on the Goblin Valley Road and turn right at Wild Horse Road. Follow the dirt road 10 miles to the trailhead on the right side of the road. The final ten miles is unpaved, but well maintained and was easily navigated with a passenger car.

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Thursday, January 28, 2010

Bird Photography at Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area

Bald eagles, American Kestrels, Northern Harriers, Great Blue Herons, and Canadian Geese, are a few of the feathered photo ops you'll find at the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area on the south shore of the Great Salt Lake in Bountiful.

Bird enthusiasts and photographers can be found slowly cruising the raised, pot-holed road through the Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area this time of year. Massive zoom lenses attached to digital cameras hang out of car windows or poke through sun roofs, their owners waiting patiently to catch any exciting bird behavior that might unfold.

Winter is an exciting time of year for bird photographers in Utah because large, photogenic birds like eagles, hawks, and herons are all within shooting distance of the road at Farmington Bay. Using their cars as mobile wildlife blinds, photographers creep slowly towards their prize, and call on long-reaching lenses to capture intimate portraits of their avian targets.

If you'd like to try your hand at Farmington Bay, here's a few suggestions on how to go about it.

Farmington Bay Waterfowl Management Area is a great place to get relatively close to birds because a road system is built out into the wetland on dikes. The freshwater bay attracts a variety of birds with an assortment of reliable food sources. On the one hand, the shallow freshwater lake provides carp for Bald eagles and small fish for blue herons, while the tall-grass wetland offers up rodents and other prey for hawks and other seasonal raptors. The wetland also attracts waterfowl like ducks, geese, and gulls, who in tern act as prey for raptors and other predators.

Driving slowly along the road in your car is the best and easiest way to approach birds for photography. Birds generally don't feel threatened by people in their car the same way they do when a human is walking near them. This makes it easier to "sneak up" on birds using your vehicle as a blind, than approaching on foot. With the right equipment a vehicle can also function as a portable tri-pod or camera support - which is important when using a long telephoto lens. Window camera mounts offer excellent stability for small to mid-size lenses, but won't provide enough support for really big glass. In which case, you'll want to use a sturdy tri-pod or mono-pod within your vehicle. Turn off your vehicle to prevent engine vibration from making your photos soft.

When it comes to lenses for bird photography, the general rule is: the longer the better! Any lens less than 300mm in length won't get you as close to the birds as you'd like. Lenses as long as 600mm are available, but you'll need a second mortgage to pay for them. So, use the longest lens you can get your hands on, and bring lots of patience to compensate for any lack of range in your equipment. Remember, even with the best equipment in the world, you'll still need tons of patience to make great bird photos.

When you do find yourself close to a prize subject, get set up and wait for interesting behavior. There's a thousand photos of bald eagles sitting quietly on a perch, but it's the charismatic behavior that sets the best photos apart. Look for situations that could become interesting. In the image above, I waited patiently while this immature eagle sat idle on this post. After about 20 minutes, hunters drove down a nearby boat ramp to launch their watercraft. The eagle didn't like them getting close, and the good action came when it was startled! If I hadn't been ready and waiting, I would have never got the shot.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Switchback Article in the Outdoor Utah Adventure Journal

The Winter issue of the Outdoor Utah Adventure Journal is out. Check out my argument in the Switchback column (pages 23-24) where I debate whether Utah's powder is precious or plentiful with Couloir Magazine founder Craig Dostie. After you've read our arguments, vote on the reader survey (found here). Notice the photo used to illustrate my point is by Lee Cohen, one of the best ski photogs in the business!

Pick up the Outdoor Utah Adventure Journal at local outdoor shops like Black Diamond, REI, IME, Christy Sports and Canyon Bicycles. Or read the story online.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Photographing Utah's Iconic Landscapes - Subway Slot Canyon, Zion National Park

This is the third article in a series of articles exploring how-to photograph the iconic images of Utah's awe-inspiring Colorado Plateau.

Today's subject, the Subway, is a circular, tunnel-like slot canyon cut by North Creek in Zion National Park. Shutterbugs are drawn to this particular slot for it's uniquely curved walls and clear, cascading waterfalls. North Creek, which runs clean and cold when it's not flash-flooding, pours over a series of sandstone steps as it exits the Subway in a quiet chamber of exquisite beauty.

Fallen leaves lend color and intrigue to Subway photos, adding to the already rich palette found in the canyon. Autumn is a good time of year to hike into the Subway because temperatures in Zion National Park are very pleasant. During summer, the long day-hike can be oppressively hot, especially when climbing back out of the creek bed to the trailhead.

The Subway is a slot canyon that can traversed from the top-down, including technical rappels, swimming through cold, deep water pools and squeezing through narrow constrictions; or hiked from the bottom-up, on a meandering trail following North Creek up an increasingly narrowing canyon.

Serious photographers will prefer the bottom-up option. The nine mile round-trip hike (also known as the Left Fork of North Creek) presents plenty of challenge even without carrying a tri-pod and heavy camera equipment.

The trail descends quickly from the trailhead into the North Fork drainage where it dips in and out of the creek bed and crosses the stream countless times. As the trail approaches the Subway slot, the photo-ops get more and more appealing, with tall red and black streaked walls closing in around the picturesque setting. Because the Subway is almost subterranean, photographers will want a tri-pod for sharp exposures. The slow moving water pouring down through the canyon creates a wonderful subject for photos as it cascades over a variety of wild rock formations. Drop pools, narrow rock grooves, and step-like ledges all play with the trickling water to your photographic eye's delight.

Try using long exposures/shutter speeds (between 1/10 of a second and 1 full second in length) and let the flowing water go silky smooth. With the limited light in the canyon it won't be a problem getting these long shutter speeds with full depth of field. Close your aperture all the way down - think f-stops in the f/22 range. A wide-angle lens is necessary to take in the entire height of the slot canyon and works great for waterfall photos. There are lots of opportunities for macro-lens photos on this hike, from frogs living in North Creek, to wonderful patterns and textures in the sandstone.

Note: Because of the popularity of the Subway, permits are required for the hike. The park service limits the number of users to 50 per day to reduce their impact on the canyon and to maintain the quality of the experience. Permits are available at Visitor Center/Ranger Station in Zion Canyon. If you plan on camping near the trailhead, procure your permit beforehand, the ranger station is in a completely different part of the park!

Getting to the Subway:

The Subway / Left Fork hike is located in the Kolob Terraces secion of Zion National Park. Turn left off State Route 9 on Kolob Terrace Road and drive 8.1 miles to the Left Fork trailhead on the right side of the road.

For more information about hiking the Subway contact the National Park Service 435/772-0170. Permits are available at the Visitor's Center/Ranger Station in Zion Canyon.